They make cents, but do toll rates make sense?
If I think about toll rates for too long it hurts my brain. Consider the following:
• If you drive the full length of each tollway, the Reagan Memorial (I-88) and Jane Addams (I-90) are the cheapest at 5 cents a mile for an I-PASS user in a passenger car, compared to 6 cents on the Tri-State (I-294/I-94/I-80) and a whopping 13 cents on Veterans Memorial (I-355).
• Toll plaza rates also vary from road to road. Toll plazas in the metropolitan region average 75 cents on I-88 and I-90. Drive the Tri-State, and it ranges from 75 cents to 95 cents -- however, the Waukegan plaza is $1.40. On I-355, you'll pay 95 cents at most plazas except at Spring Creek, where it's $1.90.
• And don't get me started on exit and entrance ramps. If you're on I-88, for example, it's 55 cents to exit at Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora but free at Route 59 to the east in Naperville.
Doesn't it seem like toll rates are all over the place? The Illinois tollway begged to differ.
Agency spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said the tollway sets rates at a level necessary to maintain and operate the system while retiring its bond debt.
"Rates for new roadways are established based on estimated construction costs and the costs to acquire land needed for a project in the year in which the new roadway will be built," she noted.
Higher toll rates on I-355, including the 5-year-old extension south to I-80, "reflect the higher cost to build them in 1989 and 2007 as prices have increased over the years due to inflation and other economic factors. In other words, the higher rates were established to help offset the corresponding higher construction costs."
Rates at other interchanges and toll plazas have generally been set based on mileage traveled between toll plazas and rounded to the nearest nickel, Abrams said.
"Drivers travel greater distances between toll plazas on the western ends of our system, and so pay higher tolls as compared to the eastern half, which is routed through urban areas with more interchanges and shorter distances between mainline toll plazas," she said.
Why am I obsessing on toll rates? It's a timely question as the agency considers whether it should take over the existing section of Route 53 between Lake-Cook Road and I-90 and build an extension north to Route 120 with tolls of 20 cents per mile. The issue is expected to be discussed Thursday.
The tollway will also charge 20 cents a mile when it eventually completes the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway extension to O'Hare International Airport and a western bypass around the airport. That means you will be able to take the new road east and north paying 20 cents a mile, then connect to I-90 where you'll pay a fraction of that cost.
"Is it equitable? The answer is no," said Bill Morris of Grayslake, a former state senator who was ousted from the tollway board last year after opposing a plan to raise tolls. "Twenty cents per mile is discriminatory against working class or poor people. If you're a person living in Aurora making $8 an hour and you drive 12.5 miles on I-88, it will be cheaper than a person making the same salary living in Round Lake and driving on the new Route 53."
Abrams noted that the 20-cent rate is just the recommendation of an advisory group and more study is required.
"While a financing plan and potential toll rates have yet to be determined, the Illinois Route 53 project as it is being considered today will cost more to build than other roads that the tollway has constructed in the past," she said. "If the tollway were to take on the Illinois Route 53 project, tolls would need to be higher to help offset the corresponding higher construction costs."
Abrams added, "There are locations where roadway improvements have resulted in changes to tolls. For example, when the Deerfield Road mainline toll plaza was removed from the northern Tri-State Tollway in 1998, toll rates at the adjacent mainline toll plazas at Waukegan Road and Touhy Avenue increased because the distance to travel between them increased."
For some perspective, I looked at the Ohio Turnpike, one road from Indiana to Pennsylvania. "It's a standard rate, it doesn't matter what section of turnpike you're on or what time of day you're traveling," spokeswoman Lauren Hakos said. "In our minds, it's fair to base your toll on distance traveled."
The turnpike charges 4.6 cents a mile for passenger vehicles using electronic tolling.
Drivers pay a per mileage fee as they exit.
Expert Christopher Poe, assistant director at the Texas Transportation Institute, said it's "common to have different rates."
"One road may have a lot of bridges to cross rivers or it may be elevated. That's a much higher cost than a road on even ground that's cheaper to build," he said.
Don Schaefer of the Mid-West Truckers Association agreed rates were "all across the board," but noted that professional drivers are used to the quirks of the system. With a 20-cent rate, it's going to be a cost-benefit analysis for truckers as to whether they'll use local roads instead of the Elgin-O'Hare and airport bypass, he surmised.
"If you're stuck in traffic, if the wheels aren't moving -- you'll balance the cost of the toll with that. There will probably be a decent acceptance level but if the price is too high, people say, 'I'll put up with the headaches. I won't pay that much to use the road,'" Schaefer said.
• There's still time to comment on IDOT alternatives for remaking the Eisenhower Expressway in the Oak Park area. Comments will be accepted until June 29. To read about the project, check out eisenhowerexpressway.com.
DuPagers beware of lane closures where Route 59, Naperville and Winfield roads intersect with Butterfield Road. The pain is part of the $52 million widening and reconstruction of Butterfield Road in Wheaton and Warrenville. Work on the six-mile stretch should end this fall. For more info, go to http://www.dot.state.il.us/IL56/index.html.